A plate of jellyfish
A teacher of mine once intoned, gravely, and over a plate of steamed Chinese dumplings: “Perhaps there is some alternate universe where food isn’t delicious, but I don’t ever want to go there.”
There’s no doubt about it: food, and our love for it, is one of our few universal values—something that everyone from North Korean dictators to Manhattan hipsters to the labourer on the family farm engages in (and for the most part, takes great pleasure in) every single day.
Considering that, why isn’t food a subject of more philosophizing? It’s the subject of endless TV shows and cookbooks and blogs, yes, but in terms of genuine questions about its very nature and what that says about us—about what it all means—there isn’t much.
In Thomas Carlyle’s 1836 novel Sartor Resartus—literally the tailor re-tailored—he performs an analysis of literature and its creation with a satirical “philosophy of clothing.” So why not the same for food? The cook re-cooked? Cuisinator Recuisinatus? (And actually, it’s Coco Re-Cocta, but that doesn’t sound so convincingly Latin for some reason.)
If you Google “food philosophy” the first search result is British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, a.k.a The Naked Chef. And while he knows food fantastically well, he might not be our best source of philosophical musings beyond teaching us that McDonald’s food is bad, gardens are good, and food you make yourself—slowly, and with people you love—is usually the best kind. But in a sense, isn’t that the purest kind of philosophy? Slow down, be happy, and practice community? I’m always loathe to take advice from celebrities (even ones who share my love of good eating), but in this case, Jamie Oliver’s philosophy isn’t that far from Cicero’s famous dictum that “one who has a garden and a good library lacks for nothing.” Nor is it far from the lives of the Trappist monks who, despite their renunciation of certain pleasures of the flesh, nonetheless enjoyed lives rich with book learning, good cheese and bread, and fine home-brewed beer. In their case, the devotion to good eating was quasi-religious.
So in re-cooking the cook, let us ask the basic questions about food, and our relationship to it as a species: one of orgiastic pleasure or guilt-ridden calorie-counting, of banana republics and banal consumers, of food as a guide to our past, present, and future—where it’s brought us, and where it’s all going.
Food as Collective Psychology
Friedrich Kittler and Marshall McLuhan have both noted that in the same way we can analyze a person’s handwriting, and draw a psychological portrait from it, we can “read” a culture’s production and consumption. So what does the Big Mac tell us about what we value? Convenience, speed and efficiency, low price over quality, meals that produce a small mountain of garbage for each client, food that is loaded with sugar and salt and preservatives, and a total disregard for our own health or for the well-being of animals and the environment. Add the Drive-Thru to this analysis, and you’ve got North American culture in a nutshell—the sociological equivalent of a handwriting analysis.
Food as a Connection to Our Past
Food, and the traditions that surround it, form one of the strongest connections to where we come from. For my wife, these roots could be in India, since her father and grandparents immigrated from there, and she’s seldom happier than when she’s cooking, Indian food in particular. Canadian-born, speaking not a word of Hindi or Telugu, thoroughly North American in her values and preferences, food is the strongest connection she has to her roots. When she cooks, it’s with the same ingredients, recipes, and flavours that her ancestors have done for hundreds, even thousands of years.
But her roots are also in the decidedly dull South St. Vital neighbourhood of Winnipeg where she grew up. And for me, it’s the even duller (yet in a charmingly Friday Night Lights blue-collar kind of way) neighbourhood of Transcona—a small prairie town that the city has slowly grown outward to meet up with and overwhelm. The kind of place where then, as now, a Slurpee and a Pogo are haute cuisine, even in the dead of winter (a strange thing about Winnipegois, their love for an icy drink in one of the coldest cities on the planet). It’s where the high point of every spring, even though it was probably only five degrees above zero, was the opening of the Dairy Queen, where line-ups of eager consumers would wait in the cold for a not-that-great-in-retrospect banana split, or grab a bag of fries at the Whistle Pig next door, eating it in the car with the engine running and the heat turned up full blast.
The Whistle Pig Drive-In in Transcona
And then there was the beer—Molson Canadian, Labatt’s Blue, maybe Kokanee if you felt a bit cosmopolitan and had actually travelled outside of the Prairie Provinces. Maybe this lack of good beer had real consequences, and it was what made the young men of my town so angry, since many of them spent their weekends getting blackout drunk and fist-fighting each other at one of the three local bars. Unless it was a special, road trip kind of weekend, when they would drive into “town” (as we still called Winnipeg in those days), get similarly drunk, and fist-fight with strangers.
In this regard, the beer serves as our “handwriting sample”—everyone consuming the exact same stuff, in a place where to do otherwise was to be labelled as weird, or stuck-up (since the worst insult a Transcona resident can hear is: “You think you’re better than me”). In short, although it will forever be the sunny small town of my youth, it’s also a place where the beer was very much like the housing: cheap, mass-produced, and uniformly bland.
It’s no coincidence that, in Montreal (my present home), the beer is varied, locally-made, and that its most desirable quality is its uniqueness—how different it tastes from Budweiser. One of our favourite local brew pubs (and there are many) makes seasonal brews that include stinging nettle, beet, pumpkin, and carrot beers. And yes, they’re delicious. Now this may or may not explain the lack of fist-fighting outside said pubs. I can’t say. Correlation isn’t causation. But cosmopolitan tastes in living, just like in beer, do seem to discourage a kind of reckless and youthful violence.
Food as Our Future
The food-y future awaits us. Is it some bleak and cheerless version of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, an eternal grey winter where we struggle through days half-starved, scrounging amidst the ruins of civilization, trying to remember (or to forget) the beautiful taste of wine? Crying bitterly and bereft of all hope in front of a Maple Leaf bacon ad, in the ruined subway system of what used to be Toronto?
Or, despite all odds, do we somehow preserve culture, so that some form of order and la dolce vita continues? If so, recent studies have suggested that natural food sources like seaweed, insects, and jellyfish, all of which are plentiful and nutritious, may form the calories of the future. And in that case, who will become for seaweed and insect patties what McDonald’s is to “real” hamburgers and fries?
It’s long been observed that each empire holds on to vestiges of the previous empires to give it legitimacy, in the same way that every kingdom from 800 BCE to the Second World War has claimed some link to ancient Troy. So how will the replacement of the Big Mac reflect this? What future food, in some gleaming Asian cloud city, will show nostalgic traces of Boise, Idaho, circa 1956? Will futuristic teenagers in Delhi and Beijing be drinking fake-chocolate shakes, made from bottle fly larvae and kelp, brought to them by white-painted robot girls on roller skates? Will the future even get it right in their nostalgia or, to paraphrase Douglas Coupland, will later anthropologists say of us that we worshipped a fertility goddess called Marilyn Monroe, who lived on the top floor of the Empire State Building and drank a thousand Pepsis a day?
String cheese, Kraft peanut butter, Ritz crackers, and Miracle Whip. Oreo Cookies and strawberry licorice. Heinz Ketchup, McDonald’s fries, and Coca-Cola. All are perfectly engineered to deliver a satisfying mouth-feel, to smell and look entirely pleasing to all our senses, and to provide five to eight seconds of sheer bliss before—like all hard drugs—the user becomes desperate for another hit, while trying to ward off the inevitable crash. Guilty pleasures. Pre-packed food like pudding cups whose taste is best described as Choco-Plastic but yet are still wonderful and delicious. Boxed macaroni with packets of orange cheez powder, a bowl of which tastes like a sort of hot Dorito porridge. Delicious, salty, milky, and dull.
This stuff, as much as anything, is the food of my culture. While my wife has a few thousand years to draw on, my culinary history begins somewhere around the time of the invention of frozen TV dinners. And it’s no coincidence that, while one of these is slow and labour-intensive, the other is instant, packaged, and produces waste that will outlive us all, ignoring not only the past, but also the future. Like so much of western culture, our food exists in an eternal present, where we want the whole world and we want it now. Now. NOW!
The future of food, if we could read it in our biscotti crumbs, would tell us much about the future of humanity. Not just what we will eat, but the where, when, and how of it: how is it produced, what the packaging and distribution and carbon footprint of it looks like, who grows it and who eats it, and what portrait all of that paints of those who will follow us.
And if we could read this future, what changes would we make? What parts of this food-based portrait of ourselves and the world we’re leaving behind—things that seem obvious in hindsight—would we seek to alter now, while there’s still time?
Lorne Roberts has worked as an art critic, editor, dishwasher, and tree planter, and currently teaches English at Collège de Bois-de-Boulogne in Montreal.